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Child Abuse Prevention

Children's, Health and Safety

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

One in four children experience some sort of neglect or abuse in their lives and one in seven have experienced abuse or neglect in the last year (American Academy of Pediatrics). In over 90% of abusive situations, a child is abused – sexually or physically – by someone they know. Abuse is often carried out by the child’s caregiver.

The current health and economic crisis induced by COVID-19 intensified several challenges for children. Loss of jobs and resources, health concerns, and isolation have led to high stress among families. Director of the Children’s Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services (CHIPS) Center, Debra Schneider, said, “Increased stress levels among parents is often a major predictor of physical abuse and neglect of children.” Stressed guardians may be more likely to respond to their child’s behavior in an aggressive way. The support systems that many at-risk parents rely on, such as extended family, childcare, schools, religious groups and other community organizations, were no longer available in many areas due to the stay-at-home orders. Child protection agencies also experienced strained resources with fewer workers available, making them unable to conduct home visits in areas with stay-at-home orders.

Schneider, said, “There has been more suspected physical abuse cases seen by the CHIPS Center in the last six months directly relating to the pandemic compared to before.” Kids are at home more under the supervision of their caregivers. Caregivers aren’t getting as much of a break because the kids are not in school.

Vulnerable situations and disasters such as the tornadoes that recently plagued central Alabama can also lead to misplaced and unsupervised children, which can then result in abusive situations.

Lack of understanding regarding child development can also lead to abuse. In instances of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, Schneider said the child is often left in the care of a family member or significant other. That person may not understand the process of child development and expects a child to do a task they cannot yet fulfill – such as walking, feeding themselves or being potty-trained. They may take out their anger on the child through a form of abuse if they cannot fulfill the task.

Signs to watch out for in victims of abuse and abusers:

There are many signs that may indicate a child is being abused. Children who are being abused might:

  • Have new onset fears
  • Have a vocabulary too advanced regarding sexual activity
  • Be withdrawn from friends and family
  • Have nightmares
  • Experience a drop in their grades
  • Change in appearance (wearing clothes that don’t align with the weather)
  • Not want to go home
  • Start using drugs
  • Bully others
  • Be sad or depressed
  • Have stories to explain injuries that don’t make sense or keep changing
  • Not want to be with the abuser
  • Act out at school

There are also signs to watch out for in abusers themselves. They usually walk the victim through a grooming process. Schneider said it is important to remember that the child is usually not abused 24/7. The relationship often consists of a more positive bond. The abuser knows what the child likes, is curious about and afraid of, and they use it to their advantage. Some sort of ‘relationship’ is formed, and a trust is established between them. That way, when harm enters the picture, the child is less likely to question their character and actions. Other signs include spending more time with the child than is appropriate, giving extraordinary gifts to the child more than what’s normal, using excuses to be alone with the child and implementing gaslighting techniques. Gaslighting is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “presenting false information to the victim with the intent of making them doubt their own memory and perception.”

Most kids think abuse comes from a stranger, but abusers are usually someone a child knows. Schneider suggests teaching kids “stranger danger;” however, build off that concept to make them aware that abusers can be someone they know.

Steps for parents to take to prevent or stop abuse:

Parents should be aware of abusive situations and know the signs to look out for in children when they are victims of abuse. The child who has endured abuse the longest typically has the longest healing process.  The quicker an abusive situation is reported, the faster a child will be removed from the situation and be provided with medical care, therapy and counseling to heal.

If an adult suspects an abusive situation, they should report it immediately. Anyone can provide an anonymous report of abuse and NOT have to prove it.

Children in an abusive situation need a trusted adult to confide in – whether that is a teacher, friend’s caregiver or guidance counselor. Schools encourage a child to tell three adults; two inside and one outside their family. That trusted adult can clearly communicate to the child, “I am here for you if anything is going on. I am not here to judge.” In some instances, the trusted adult’s child may be present for the conversation if it creates a comfortable atmosphere for the child experiencing abuse.

Adults who suspect abuse should approach the child gently. If the adult asks too many questions, the child may feel in trouble. Adults should never make promises to not tell anyone, since that is a key action to be taken when stopping abusive situations. Remind the child that abuse is NEVER their fault.

Since conversations about abuse can be very difficult to bring up, adults should consider this advice when approaching a suspected victim of abuse. Schneider suggests bringing up an incident from the news as a segue into a conversation about the abusive situation. In addition, having these conversations in the car creates a more relaxed, noninvasive environment.

The next step for adults would be to report to the local department of human resources or a child protective services agency. You can also contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). You don’t have to give your name. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911.

 “Abuse is not the child’s whole story,” Schneider said. “There is hope when intervention occurs.”

Children's, Health and Safety

Parenting During a Pandemic

“During a pandemic, risk factors for child abuse and neglect like parental stress due to finances and instability increase,” said Deb Schneider, director of Children’s Hospital Intervention and Prevention Services (CHIPS) Center at Children’s of Alabama. Now that schools and childcare centers are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to make plans to keep kids busy at home. Advance planning and working together can help reduce stress in the household.

Parenting During a Pandemic

  • Establish a routine to help children cope with anxiety
  • Limit children’s access to news and social media related to the pandemic.
  • Never discipline a child when you are angry.
  • If you, the parent/caregiver, are experiencing stress and anxiety, take a break. Call a friend or family member.
  • Family activities like walking, playing card games and working puzzles help ease stress.
  • Give children access to art supplies and music as alternatives to screen time

Being away from friends, extended family and social activities can be hard on teens and kids. To help them stay connected,  set up FaceTime or Skype playdates or visits.

Recognizing and Reporting Abuse

While kids are currently out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic,  experts at Children’s of Alabama want to remind you of the importance of recognizing and reporting abuse of any kind.

“By learning common types of abuse and what you can do, you can make a huge difference in a child’s life,” Schneider said. “The earlier abused children get help, the greater chance they have to heal from their abuse and not perpetuate the cycle.”

The four types of child abuse are:
• Physical Abuse
• Sexual Abuse
• Emotional Abuse
• Neglect

The signs of child abuse vary depending on the type of abuse, but there are some common indicators.

Warning signs of emotional abuse in children:
• Excessively withdrawn, fearful or anxious about doing something wrong
•  Extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive)
• Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver
• Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb sucking, tantrums)

Warning signs of physical abuse in children:
• Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts or cuts
• Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen
• Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt
• Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements or seems afraid to go home
• Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries,i.e.  long-sleeved shirts on hot days

Warning signs of neglect in children:
• Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy or inappropriate for the weather
• Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor)
• Untreated illnesses and physical injuries
• Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments
• Is frequently late or missing from school

Warning signs of sexual abuse in children:
• Trouble walking or sitting
• Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior
• Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person without an obvious reason
• Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities

Supervision is important. Know where your children are. Make sure children know sexual abuse is never their fault and that they won’t be in any trouble if they tell.

Help for Alabama’s abused children is available at the CHIPS Center. The CHIPS Center provides forensic medical evaluations, psychosocial assessments, play therapy, counseling for non-offending caregivers and other support services. All counseling and preventive services are free. If you suspect a child has been or is being abused,   please contact your county Department of Human Resources or  call the CHIPS Center at Children’s by dialing 205-638-2751. For more information,  visit childrensal.org/CHIPS.